By Tim Hayes []

The Sign, haphazardly Scotch-taped to the basement cinder-block wall of my college newspaper’s newsroom, carried a hand-scrawled message on a hastily ripped sheet of notebook paper.  I first saw it during my junior year as a still-raw, still-learning, still-aspiring journalist.  It was a long, long time ago.  But I think of that sign damn near every single day, even now.  It simply read:

“Good stories are written, not assigned.”

I never found out who posted The Sign.  My guess would be a frustrated editor at the paper who just got fed up with collegiate cub reporters complaining about the stories they were told to go report on and write.  But no matter who wrote it, I doubt he or she knew the depth of wisdom and legacy of impact that The Sign would carry.

Because think about it.  None of us can control what life throws at us, good or bad.  But each of us can control how we react to it, deal with it, use it.  It’s up to you to dig for excellence, to find the pearl, to elevate your own situation.  It’s like the two brothers who came downstairs on Christmas morning only to find two huge piles of horse manure.  The first brother can’t believe it and gets angry, but the second brother screams for joy.  When asked why, he simply says, “There’s a pony under here somewhere!”

In the newsroom, The Sign meant accepting the assignment from the editor and doing one’s level best to interview carefully, listen perceptively, think deeply, and present the information accurately and colorfully.  The assignment’s only the beginning.  What you make of it is up to you.

I can remember driving the back roads of the rural county where my first newspaper job was located, going out to cover local government and outlying school board meetings.  Hardly the sort of sexy subject matter a young, hungry journalist dreams about, right?

Wrong.  If you want to find drama, passion, conflict stripped down to the bare baseline of human emotion, try attending your local school board meeting at budget time, or when it’s considering closing a school, or when the football coach has been fired.  One school district worked itself into such a lather over whether to increase the tax millage rate assessed against homeowners that I had school board members on either side of the argument calling me at home the morning after the meeting – and I had to be at work by 7 a.m.!  Those were some of the best stories I’ve ever written.

The Sign worked its magic again the summer I worked on the news desk of a big metropolitan newspaper.  Competing with nine other college journalism interns, I struggled in the first couple of weeks with what I considered simple, stupid, meaningless assignments. 

The city editor told me to go interview someone at a local union shop about a disagreement they were having with a major local manufacturer.  Ho-hum, right?  But by asking more questions, checking more sources, and seeking out more perspective from veteran reporters, I came to the unique angle of the story.  I wrote an article on how – through the convoluted and concurrent games of chess and chicken that this union and the manufacturer played – the union ended up rejecting millions in pay offered by the company in exchange for doing nothing.  Strange, but true.

And I scored my first of seven Page One lead stories that summer.  The Sign had proven its worth once more – and has continued to do so in the years and decades since.  It speaks the truth.  Good stories are written, not assigned.

Copyright 2010 Transverse Park Productions LLC